Inspiration and greater investment are the real mothers of invention

Universities have the potential to lead the way to a high-tech, economically robust future for the UK, according to James Dyson

April 8, 2010

New technology. We all want it. The fastest computers, batteries that don't need recharging, cars that power themselves. But do we still want to invent? Science and engineering are just beginning to emerge from a long era of neglect. Britain has excellent universities, world-class facilities and an intrinsic creativity - but talent trickles away because we don't make the most of it.

Investing in higher education is our ticket to becoming international high-tech experts and, by consequence, economically robust. To do this we need to focus on two things: people and research.

Encouraging people starts at school and continues into higher education. We need to ensure school pupils are introduced to the fascination of science and engineering and pursue these disciplines in higher education. What can be more exciting than sending a piece of your own engineering into space, making a lasting medical discovery or creating a technology that solves our energy problems?

We need more scientists and engineers.

I do take some comfort from the government's pledge to fund an extra 20,000 undergraduate university places for this autumn - most of which will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. But, impressive though the £0 million modernisation fund for STEM subjects pledged in the Budget may sound, it represents only 1.8 per cent of the total spent on higher education in 2009-10 (£15 billion).

I realise these are difficult times, but unless we encourage and inspire the next generation of designers, engineers and scientists, we won't be able to capitalise on our high-tech ability.

And we do have that ability. Alan Windle's nanotechnology laboratory at the University of Cambridge is a wonderful mix of state-of-the-art technology and hands-on experimentation. It's pushing science, technology and possibilities forward. Nanotechnology will completely revolutionise the way we engineer things. Smaller, stronger, lighter machines and more efficient electrical conductivity.

We're leading the world in this kind of research - although China isn't far behind. Britain's future wealth depends on applying our learning to exportable high-tech industries: lithium ion batteries, electric cars, energy-harnessing paint. But Cambridge is one of 53 British universities facing below-inflation funding allocations for research and teaching.

This is a problem. Research and ideas that come out of our universities are vital to our economy. In universities today, blue-skies research projects keep genuine breakthroughs alive and allow us to compete on a global scale. But with budget cuts, how can we capture all this expertise and fire it into industry?

I'm convinced that we can find solutions. After three or four years of inventing and researching, many qualified scientists and engineers have been pulled into the City by attractive salaries. I believe that researchers should be paid a proper wage - to keep their passion and experience where we need it.

And we need more flexibility. Being a student is about learning. We need more sandwich courses and work placements. It benefits both students and industry. While I was studying, I worked for Rotork. My final-year project was a sea truck, a high-speed landing craft. The experience transformed the way I approached invention and gave my ideas practical meaning. Many of the design engineers from Dyson already have an impressive invention or two on their CVs.

Universities will lead the way to a high-tech future. There have been 116 UK Nobel prizewinners. Some 29 UK institutions are in the top 200 universities worldwide. We aren't short of raw talent and creative thinking. We need to find a way to best use it.

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